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Utilitarian Ethics Case Study

Suppose that a jet mechanic working for a major airline - we'll call the airline "AirXYZ" - finds a rather serious instrument wiring problem. The mechanic alerts management that the wiring problem is serious enough that it would cause the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ground the entire fleet of Air XYZ.

Using the utilitarian approach, describe the ethics of this situation in the context of the benefit - and the cost - to Air XYZ of choosing to notify the FAA and consequently, choosing to voluntarily ground its fleet of planes.

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Very helpful: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/
A bit less so: http://www.utilitarianism.com/utilitarianism.html

This is a major airline. Hence, we're talking about lots of people.
If the maximal amount of happiness/satisfaction makes the utilitarian idea what it is, then we have to ground the fleet.
There seems to be no real alternative.

Now, how can we make sense of this from the utilitarian point of view?

1. Let's say that 1,000 people read about this case. How many would say that the fleet should be grounded? Almost all (if not all). We'd be outraged if the wiring issue was not addressed right away. This is important because utilitarians want to know about WHY we have the moral reactions we do. We would feel some kind of internal revulsion if the airline did NOT ground the planes. Utilitarianism tells us why - we could picture the misery and death that ignoring this problem might cause. We have a moral "sense" that money here does not matter. Few (if any) would say to hide the problem for the sake of a few extra dollars.

2. This might lead to an increase in the good reputation of the company. The company, for example, can make a big deal about this. Say that we caught the problem and grounded the fleet. This might do much for their reputation; caring about the passengers more than cash.

3. Remember too - we care about the general good BECAUSE we care about ourselves. Think of it this way - if the fleet were not grounded, eventually, this news would leak out. Maybe not a fiery crash, but a whistle-blower. We care about our own reputation, and hence, saving lives is the right thing to do.

4. Think in market terms - (Adam Smith was a utilitarian, after all) - if the fleet were grounded for safety concerns, this would help the firm in many different ways. ...

Solution Summary

The following posting discusses a case study involving utilitarian ethics.

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